Steven Spielberg's new show Falling Skies launched last night on TNT, and the good news is, it got gangbuster ratings for a basic cable show: 5.9 million viewers, more than The Walking Dead's first episode on AMC.
The bad news is, the opening two parter has a lot of storytelling weaknesses, and it's hard to say how many of those 5.9 million people will tune in again next week, and the week after. We've already seen the first seven hours of Falling Skies, so we know the show grew on us after a few episodes. Let's hope other people have the same amount of patience.
But let's focus on the positive first: The basic story is pretty intriguing so far, and some of the action scenes are gangbusters, especially in the first hour where they spent all the money. As you probably know, it's six months after the aliens invaded, and the human race is basically living like rats. Some of the humans, including our heroes, are trying to form a resistance against the aliens, but they're pretty pathetic and haven't been able to cause much damage so far. And meanwhile, the aliens are kidnapping children, especially tweens and teens, and turning them into a laborforce controlled by "harnesses" on their spines. If you try and remove a child's harness, he or she dies.
There's a large dose of Jericho in here, but also Spielberg's own War of the Worlds, and a bit of Tripods. Plus a bunch of other things.
In last night's largely unconnected two episodes, we witnessed the last stand of Boston, before the humans abandoned it to the aliens. And then we followed a straggling group of resistance fighters, who are banking on being too small a group for the aliens to track but are still following the roads and moving in an easy-to-spot formation.
In hour one, the humans make it to a refuge, but don't have enough food to feed all their civilians — so a small group, led by Tom Mason (Noah Wyle) have to go back to a supermarket warehouse and get some food. During this mission, they nearly die thanks to a "Skitter," an alien spider creature, and a "Mech," a robot/walker. And Tom's son Hal spots Tom's other son Ben, who's been captured and enslaved by the aliens.
In the second hour, Tom and Hal go scouting an old armory, looking for weapons. Instead, they find a gang of outlaws led by the psychotic asshole Pope, who take the resistance fighters hostage and want to exchange them for weapons and supplies. Tom and his friends are only saved thanks to the bravery of Dr. Linda Glass (Moon Bloodgood) who goes in to treat Pope's wounded brother, and Maggie, one of Pope's crew who changes sides at the last moment.
The storytelling was good solid post-apocalyptic/alien invasion stuff, with people scurrying through the ruins of our own civilization and seeing traces of the good life we used to have before the evil aliens showed up.
Stuff I liked included:
Some of the action scenes, especially the supermarket fight, ending with the sequence where Tom and the others look into the alien's eyes as it dies, and Tom says the alien is thinking "nothing now." (See clip above.)
Some of the attempts to infuse wartime reality into the show by creator Robert Rodat (who wrote Saving Private Ryan) including the terminology, and the semi-realistic look at a volunteer militia trying to do the best they can in the middle of an ongoing rout.
The idea that the humans are basically just retreating and retreating, but somehow there's still the faith that eventually they're going to figure out a way to fight back.
Unfortunately, there was also a lot of stuff I didn't really like, including:
Most of the characterization. Wait a minute, I'm a bit confused. Was Noah Wyle's character a history professor before the aliens attacked? I wasn't really sure. Maybe what would have helped is if he'd quoted stuff from history books every five minutes, and/or had someone telling him, "Ever the history professor, Tom." Likewise, I wasn't entirely sure whether Moon Bloodgood's character was a kindly doctor, or whether Jesus Girl really loved Jesus. Or whether Captain Surlypants was really kind of a civilian-hating jerk. This was one-note characterization with a giant megaphone.
Some of the big broad-brush conflicts. There are a lot of conflicts being established in these opening two hours that don't entirely work, and won't really be dealt with in future episodes. Like the idea that the army just wants to ditch the civilians, so it won't have a human race to fight for any more.
The love triangle. The love triangle where Jesus Girl and Blonde Girl are both competing for Hal? Ugh. I think it's intended to make teenage viewers more into the show, so they can be "shippers" and make tumblrs about how Hal really should end up with Jesus Girl, but since none of these teenagers has anything even remotely approaching a personality, it's sort of wasted.
Pope. I'm already hearing that some people liked Pope, who's clearly meant to be this show's version of Sawyer. With a bit of Baltar sprinkled in. But I would be happy never to have to look at him again — he's as much a one-note character as all the other characters, except that his note is "scary Massachusetts redneck." Oh,and since he's a racist and a rapist, I don't think we really need to get invested in his character.
So yeah, not my favorite first two episodes of a series ever. But there are some very promising ideas sprinkled in here, and the show does a lot more with them in the coming weeks.